Phoenix Artist Patricia Sannit on History, Archaeology, and How Humans Impact Culture

Patricia Sannit standing in front of her kiln at her home studio in Phoenix.
Patricia Sannit standing in front of her kiln at her home studio in Phoenix.
Mikey Estes

What happens in the studio, shouldn't always stay in the studio. Studio Visit Q+A is a weekly series that profiles artists in their studios. We ask them questions, they provide answers, and then we have a nice discussion about their work. This week: Phoenix ceramic artist Patricia Sannit.

History is essentially the build-up of layer upon layer. Each past layer lends influence to the one atop it. The ceramic work of Patricia Sannit hints at this history, detailing the migration of one culture into another. Though formally trained as an artist, Sannit spent time working as an archaeologist. This fascination with cultures both past and present surfaces in her work.

See also: Phoenix Artist Cecily Culver on Thing Theory and The Ecology of Contemporary Life

Sannit's ceramic work used to primarily consist of vessels, but her work over the past several years has been breaking out of that tradition. Her interests in history and archaeology have led her to make work that's invested in process and research. Using reclaimed clay, Sannit crafts small ceramic pieces that are often stacked in layers. Her installations group these stacks into formations that resemble cities.

Sannit's studio, filled with various ceramic projects.
Sannit's studio, filled with various ceramic projects.
Mikey Estes

When we confront these stacks, we're put in the position of the archaeologist. We observe each layer and how it relates to the next. The markings on the ceramics are the remnants of a culture, but that culture doesn't just disappear. It's still visible, but appropriated and transformed. Our contemporary world is quite different from the time of the Romans, but Sannit proposes that humans have more in common collectively than we may readily think.

History affects us today just as one layer leads into the next in the work. When Sannit began working as an archaeologist, her perspective of history and the world changed. "I just found this common language that seemed so universal," said Sannit. "I felt, really for the first time, sort of connected to things." We often separate our lived experience today from that of the past, but there's a sense of continuity there that warrants a closer look.

Sannit intentionally marks and arranges her ceramic work, but her process still embraces the nature of uncertainty. As a material, clay requires a lot of control, but Sannit has been letting the clay do what it wants to do. With reclaimed clay specifically, its history is visibly present. The hand of the artist who used it before is still there and Sannit wants that additional layer. She can't make work about a history if that history is erased in favor of another one.

Some of Sannit's small ceramic pieces arranged in a city-like installation in her studio.
Some of Sannit's small ceramic pieces arranged in a city-like installation in her studio.
Mikey Estes

Currently, Sannit is working on producing more installation work with her ceramic pieces. Much like her installation in "Collected Echoes" at Halt Gallery earlier this year, the work is taking on the form of a meandering river. Directly referring to the migration of peoples and cultures, the installation hints at how layers of human history started to form in the first place. We move and bring things with us, ultimately leaving an impact on culture.

Sannit is also a part of ArtFarm, a collective consisting of artists Mimi Jardine and Chris Jagman. The collective's goal is to produce exhibitions and elevate art in Phoenix so that it gets the attention and recognition it deserves. The collective currently has an exhibition on view until May 3 at Halt Gallery titled "Privacy. Protection. Act." Just as Sannit's work deals with the impact of culture over time, ArtFarm seeks to make an impact here in Phoenix.  

The exterior of Sannit's studio is the home of some of her completed work.
The exterior of Sannit's studio is the home of some of her completed work.
Mikey Estes

Tell us about your work in haiku format. Well, I had a hard time choosing which of the many haiku I wrote. So many possibilities. I like to work in multiples and series, then I don't have to edit my decisions so dramatically. I like series and groups as I find that one piece generates the next; working in series so I can do theme and variations, developing lots of ideas. Thus, a multiple of haiku too.

wet clay, my old friend records every fingerprint so much history

migration is the river of ideas art culture passing through me

making art with marks building cities with bricks of clay thinking of time stream

I speak a common language and it is art. And human ambition

building. transforming. using universal marks. destroying. building.

What artist(s) are you really into right now? I look at art all of the time, new art, old art, traditional sculpture, modernism, minimalism, functional ceramics, craft, outsider art, and as much contemporary art as I can. I really like artists who engage with ideas in a subtle and clever way and also work that is political and challenging and smart and funny. And I have a soft spot aesthetically for minimalist material specific work and contemporary craft that pushes traditional boundaries.

My artist list for today:

Arlene Scheket, Bill Viola, Francis Alÿs, Isamu Noguchi, Ana Mendieta, Carl Andre, Cornilia Parker, Brancusi, Robert Smithson, Kiki Smith, Baptiste Debombourg, Janine Antoni, Dominique Blaine, Marek Cecula, Tetsuda Yamada, Lilly Zuckerman

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What are you reading? I just finished reading Bone Clock by David Mitchell. I am also reading Martha Gellhorn, The Face of War, Dexter Filkins, Forever War, Piranesi, Complete Etchings, The Ceramic Bible, and Human Universals by Donald E. Brown.

What's the last TV show, film, or video you watched? Inherent Vice with Joaquin Phoenix. I don't watch TV really, I can't stand commercials and people being mean to each other. But, we record Mad Men, Veep, Downton Abbey, and Girls and watch them on Sunday night after our younger child is asleep.

If you could collaborate with any artist, alive or dead, who would it be and why? I would like to collaborate with someone like Pipilotti Rist. I want to do video and projection and have no skills in the area. Pipolitti's work is intriguing, technically beautiful, and I love saying her name. She looks like she has fun. I always thought that if I had a pseudonym it would be Mimma Sannitino, so that makes us sort of related somehow.

I do collaborate now with Chris Jagmin and Mimi Jardine as part of the collective ArtFarm. True collaboration is really hard, I think that most artists have strong ideas and are not necessarily open to allowing others to shape them. When we work as the collective ArtFarm, we work on projects that don't represent any of our work specifically, but sort of channel aspects of art that we are interested in.

I also collaborate in a sense on my large installations. I invite groups of people to come to my studio and draw of carve on pieces that I made. This is really more of a contribution that a collaboration, because an aspect of my work in the impact and influence pf people on culture. When I invite people to come and carve a piece that I have made, I am absorbing their aesthetic into a larger whole, and allowing their contribution to reflect the flux of culture.

What was the last exhibition you saw and what did you think of it? I saw "Sparkle Baby" at Grant Street Studios by MFA candidate Samantha Lyn Aasen. The photographs were a compelling mix of provocative, powerful, puerile, and poignant. I think that Aasen handled her subject matter in a fresh and very direct manner. Initially, I wondered what new could be said about the impact of "Barbie" culture on little girls, but the show did much more than rehash old ideas. It was pushy and pretty great.

Sannit's reclaimed clay soaking in water.
Sannit's reclaimed clay soaking in water.
Mikey Estes

Jeff Koons or Marina Abramović and why? Oh, both. They both have HUGE visions and massive creative energy. I have been completely absorbed, enthralled and impressed by both of their work at various times.

What's the best advice you've ever received? "just start"

What are you currently working on? ArtFarm is introducing and assisting Tinnas Enidraj Nimgaj in a show called "Privacy. Protection. Act." that is opening at Halt Gallery this Friday. I have an installation in Tucson at Conrad Wilde Gallery opening in May and am doing an installation for the "Arizona Biennial" at the Tucson Museum of Art in July.

What's your most valued tool as an artist? Hands. But without education, rumination, and synaptic associations and conversations with stimulating, brilliant, people, I wouldn't have anything to make with my hands, so.....

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